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IF WE MUST DIE: African-American Voices on War and Peace

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IF WE MUST DIE: African-American Voices on War and Peace. KARIN L. STANFORD, PH.D. INTRODUCTION. If We Must Die is a compilation of the perspectives of African-American leaders, intellectuals, noted figures and average citizens on America’s wars. Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

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  • If We Must Die is a compilation of the perspectives of African-American leaders, intellectuals, noted figures and average citizens on America’s wars.
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008
the title
The Title
  • The title is drawn from a poem of the same name written by the poet Claude McKay at the end of World War I.
  • During this period, African Americans were subjected to random racial violence and lynching.
  • McKay’s defiant poem reflected the resolve of African Americans to defend themselves.

If we must die—

Let it not be like hogs

Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,

While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,

Making their mock at our accursed lot.

If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,

So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain;

then even the monsters we defy

Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!  

Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;

Though far outnumbered, let us still be brave,

And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!

What though before us lies the open grave?

Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,

Pressed to the wall, dying, but—fighting back!


In the context of this book, If We Must Die reflects similar sentiments; but it also indicates a will to fight for honor, liberty and democracy, even if the cost is death.

  • For those African Americans supportive of the U.S. in wartime, If We Must Die, can be seen as an expression of loyalty and patriotism.
  • On the opposite side, are those African Americans who are also willing to risk their lives, but for the purposes of speaking out against the U.S. war effort, even at the risk of persecution or death.
america at war
America At War
  • Space limitations and repetitiveness required that this work spotlight the larger wars.
  • War of 1812
  • Civil War
  • Spanish-American and Philippines War
  • World War I
  • World War II
  • Korean War
  • Vietnam War
  • Persian Gulf War
  • Iraq War
organization of book
  • Each section begins with an introduction that:
    • describes the war and its causes, and
    • the context for the African-American response.
  • The commentaries selected for inclusion were based on;
    • Their significance to the war
    • Their representation of a particular point of view
    • Availability
    • Uniqueness of the voice
    • Limitation: Not all African American expressions are written or have been recorded.
research questions
  • What are the perspectives of African Americans on the major wars of the U.S.
  • To what extent are African American views on wars congruent with U.S. government official position.
  • Research Statements of Black Leaders, Thinkers and Activists
  • Use of Primary Documents
  • Documents utilized are consistent with cultural and historical settings
  • Critical Assessment of Primary Documents
  • Two primary perspectives have been advanced by African Americans
  • 1) The Integrationist/Patriotic Perspective.
    • Inherent in the ideology of Integrationism is the belief that racial problems within the U.S. can be resolved.
  • Supporting U.S. foreign policy objectives and fighting in America's wars is the duty of African-Americans--simply because, as granted by the 14th Amendment, they are Americans.
  • African Americans can prove they deserve fair treatment by demonstrating a willingness to defend the U.S. and make the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
  • During the Spanish American War, Booker T. Washington praised African Americans for choosing to side with their country. Washington said,
    • “When a few months ago, the safety and honor of the Republic were threatened by a foreign foe, when the wail and anguish of the oppressed from a distant isle reached his ears, we find the Negro forgetting the laws and customs that discriminate against him in his own country, and again we find our black citizen choosing the better part.” (Oct. 16, 1898).

2) The Black Nationalist Perspective

    • Black nationalists believe that racism is the primary cause of African American subordination
    • Inherent in Black Nationalism is a Pan-African consciousness that obligates Africans to support each other everywhere. Proponents of this approach believe that U.S. foreign policy is not divorced from the domestic experiences of African-Americans: on the contrary, it is often intertwined.
  • Contradictions of U.S. foreign policy on issues of liberty and equality are often pointed out by those who embrace a nationalist perspective.
  • If the U.S. government is serious about its principles of democracy and liberty for all, then it would first promote true equality inside the United States.
  • Support for U.S. foreign policy objectives should only occur if the result is a tangible benefit for their community.

A statement by Bishop Henry McNeal Turner during the war in the Philippines exemplifies the Black Nationalist perspective on America’s wars. Bishop McNeal said:

“If this is a white man’s government, and we grant that it is, let him take care of it. The Negro has no flag to defend.” (May 1899)

african american commentary on u s wars
African American Commentary on U.S. Wars
  • African-Americans have examined their place in each war uniquely.
  • The Integrationist Perspective on War dominated African American expression during the Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and the Civil War.
  • During the Revolutionary War blacks hoped that the liberation of the colonists from Britain would also lead to freedom from slavery.
  • Regarding the War of 1812, blacks also perceived support for the U.S. as an opportunity to gain respect and demonstrate loyalty to their country. Still believing that liberation from involuntary servitude was imminent, many supported the war, although others did not refrain from engaging in violence to end slavery.
  • The Civil War was an opportunity for blacks to openly engage in armed struggle for their freedom. There was widespread support for this war among black people who considered the Civil War an opportunity to defeat the system of slavery.
frederick douglass
Frederick Douglass
  • On the Civil War

“ A Demand for the Black Man” (1863)

There is no time to delay. The title is at its flood that leads on to future. From East and West, from North to South, the sky is written all over, “Now or Never.” “Liberty won by white men who would lose half its luster.” “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.” “Better even die free, than to live slaves.” This is the sentiment of every brave colored man amongst us.

the spanish american war and the war in the philippines
The Spanish American War and the War in the Philippines
  • As Reconstruction ended, pessimism engulfed the African American community. Their previous support for America's wars and foreign policy objectives began to decline.
  • U.S. involvement in Cuba and the Philippines was related to U.S. expansionism.
  • Some African-Americans saw the war against Spain in Cuba as an opportunity to support an oppressed nation with a large black population, while others saw the U.S. as a potential colonizer of non-white nations.

M. W. Saddler, Twenty-Fifth Infantry, (1898)

I wish to call attention to the heroic part the Twenty-fifth United States Infantry played in compelling the surrender of Santiago. We have no reporter in the division and it appears that we are coming up unrepresented…

The Spaniards call us “Negretter Solados” and say there is no use shooting at us, for steel and powder will not stop us. We only hope our brethren will come over and help us to show to the world that rue patriotism is in the minds of the sons of Ham. All we need is leaders of our own race to make war records, so that their names may go down in history as a reward for the price of our precious blood.

world wars i ii
World Wars I & II
  • African-American perspectives during World War I and II were a mixture of nationalist and integrationist sentiments.
  • African Americans had migrated from the rural south to the north and urban centers in pursuit of employment and a better life. One such road to that end was to pursue opportunities in the military.
  • However, poor treatment of African American soldiers and the entrenchment of Jim Crow in America’s major cities quelled the patriotism of African Americans.
  • Nonetheless, because of the potential for financial gain, African Americans emphasized integration in the defense industries and armed forces, while calling for equitable treatment.
commentary on world wars
Commentary on World Wars
  • W. E. B. DuBois, “Close Ranks” (1918).

We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which the German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy. Let us not hesitate. Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations that are fighting for democracy. We have no ordinary sacrifice, but we make it gladly and willingly with our eyes lifted to the hills.

  • A Philip Randolph, “A Call to the Negro American To March on Washington” (1941).

What is this crisis? To American Negroes, it is the denial of jobs in Government defense projects.  It is racial discrimination in Government departments.  It is widespread Jim-Crowism in the armed forces of the Nation. While billions of the taxpayers’ money are being spent for war weapons, Negro workers are being turned away from the gates of factories, mines and mills—being flatly told, “nothing doing.”  Some employers refuse to give Negroes jobs when they are without “union cards,” and some unions refuse Negro workers union cards when they are “without jobs.” What shall we do? What a runaround! What a disgrace! What a blow below the belt!

korean and vietnam wars
Korean and Vietnam Wars
  • These two wars took place within the context of Cold War politics and the struggle for civil rights.
  • African Americans viewed the Cold War as part of the U.S. quest to spread capitalism abroad, while still denying them full citizenship.
  • African American domestic and anti-war activism increased during this period and their concerns about the Vietnam War were framed in more ideological terms.

  Paul Robeson, Denounce the Korean Intervention, 1950

The meaning of the President's order that the lives of our airmen and sailors must be sacrificed for the government's despicable puppet in Korea shall mot be lost to the millions in the East whose day of freedom is not far off.  And it will not be lost to the millions of Americans who must insist louder than ever for peace in the world, for real freedom everywhere, for security and brotherhood. Least of all will the meaning of the President's order be lost to the Negro people. They will know that if we don't stop our armed adventure in Korea today-tomorrow it will be Africa. 

persian gulf and iraq wars
Persian Gulf and Iraq Wars
  • African-Americans have become more integrated into the military and foreign policy apparatus.
  • Still, public opinion polls indicate that they are less likely to support America’s wars than white Americans.
  • The Iraq war was fought under the leadership of an African American head of the of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs and two African American secretaries of state.

Bishop Thomas Dexter Jakes, 2001

I believe [President Bush] deserves our whole support, our complete prayer, and our consecration because we have never been threatened like we are being threatened right now. You’re hearing words like campaign; they’re launching a campaign, which is basically just a nice word for war. And they’re launching a war strategy specifically to protect and defend this country.

  • Although African American perspectives on America’s wars have not been monolithic, their commentary on U.S. wars remains juxtaposed with their domestic racial experiences.
  • Even as the country has matured and African Americans began to play more central roles in national decision-making, the question of supporting U.S. war policy continues to provoke piercing debate within the African American community.